Beit Midrash

  • Family and Society
  • The Laws of Kashrut
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Bishul Akum Problems in the Home


Rabbi Yirmiyohu Kaganoff

Tammuz 5 5776
The Gemara (Avodah Zarah 37b) suggests that the source of the prohibition of bishul akum is from the Jews’ encounter with Sichon. Even though not all of us are reading parshas Chukas this week, this still provides an opportunity to discuss the types of bishul akum problems that may happen.

In a previous article, we began a discussion of bishul akum problems that can happen in the comfort of one’s home. We now continue our discussion…

Commuter crisis
Mrs. Goldman* is stuck in a typical commuter predicament. The traffic is not moving, and it is well past the time that she should be putting up supper. She calls the non-Jewish babysitter, Jenny, to apologize for the delay and asks her to find something in the freezer to warm and serve the kids. Jenny finds some blintzes, places them on ceramic cookware and pops them into the toaster oven. That evening, when Rabbi Goldman returns from kollel, Mrs. Goldman tells him about her frustrating commute home. Rabbi Goldman realizes that they may now have a kashrus concern in their house.

As I explained in the previous article, Jenny's warming the blintzes created a bishul akum problem. Frozen blintzes are inedible at the time the company freezes them. When you remove these products from your freezer and heat them, you are cooking them, whether you realize it or not. Therefore, when Jenny warmed these foods, she not only cooked them, but she also made them into prohibited bishul akum, thus rendering the foods and the equipment non-kosher, although she meant no harm.

Even in the comforts of your own home?
When Mrs. Goldman's mother heard about the calamity that had befallen her grandchildren, in that they ate non-kosher bishul akum food, she reacted with surprise: "But does bishul akum apply in your own house?" Indeed, she is not the first to raise this issue.
Does the prohibition of bishul akum exist when the food is cooked in a Jewish house? Since neither of the reasons for the prohibition --- the risk of social interaction or the kashrus concerns -- exists when the food is prepared in a Jewish house by a hired hand, perhaps the prohibition does not exist either. Indeed, one of the early Baalei Tosafos, Rav Avraham ben Harav David, contended that no bishul akum prohibition exists when food is prepared in a Jewish house.

However, Rabbeinu Tam disputed this conclusion, contending that in the vast literature Chazal provided concerning the prohibition of bishul akum, they made no such distinction. Furthermore, Rabbeinu Tam contends that the reasons for bishul akum apply, even in a Jewish house (Tosafos, Avodah Zarah 38a s.v. Ela). The Shulchan Aruch rules according to Rabbeinu Tam (Yoreh Deah 213:1), although some authorities rule that, even according to Rabbeinu Tam, the prohibition of bishul akum does not apply to long-term hired household servants (Issur VaHeter, quoted by Taz, Yoreh Deah 113:3). This approach is not accepted by most later authorities (Chachmas Odom 66:7).

Three times and you're safe!
There is a lenience regarding kashering from bishul akum that does not apply to most halachos. Ordinarily, if an earthenware or ceramic vessel absorbs non-kosher taste, there is no way to kasher the equipment, and it has been rendered permanently non-kosher. In such a case, your beautiful ceramic may be used henceforth as a planter or for some other decorative purpose, but not for food preparation.

However, Chazal were lenient when the essence of a prohibition is rabbinic in origin, as is the case with bishul akum. They permitted kashering even normally non-kasherable earthenware by boiling the vessel three times (Shulchan Aruch, Yoreh Deah 113:16). Thus, Mrs. Goldman may kasher her favorite ceramic bowl by boiling it three times, and it can then be returned to kosher use.

Microwaved blintzes
Would the same prohibition apply if Jenny had heated the blintzes in the microwave instead of the toaster oven?

Why should it make any difference?

Indeed, one of our generation’s greatest halachic authorities, Rav Shmuel Wosner of Bnei Beraq, ruled that no difference exists between having a gentile cook food in a microwave oven or by any other means: it is prohibited as bishul akum.

However, I have read opinions from other rabbonim who dispute this conclusion. I will explain some of their reasons.

The Talmud Yerushalmi discusses whether there is a prohibition of bishul akum when food is cooked by smoking. One should be aware that there are several different methods of preparing food that are all called "smoking," but for our purposes we are discussing food that is cooked by heating it in hot smoke. (Some types of sausage, including frankfurters, are often cooked this way.)

Why should smoking be different from any other type of cooking?

Most cooking is performed either in a liquid, usually water, or through baking or roasting, which are through direct heat without any liquid medium. All these methods of food preparation fall under the prohibition of bishul akum. Frying is also prohibited because of bishul akum, since oil is, likewise, considered to be a liquid medium as in regular cooking (Aruch HaShulchan 113:24). Smoking, on the other hand, involves cooking food without direct heat in a non-liquid medium, which is qualitatively different. The question is whether this distinction in the cooking method is significant enough that Chazal did not include it in their prohibition of bishul akum.

The Shulchan Aruch rules that food smoked by a gentile is not prohibited because of bishul akum (Yoreh Deah 113:13). Thus, he concludes that where the method of food preparation differs significantly from what Chazal prohibited, the prohibition does not exist, even though the reasons for the prohibition of bishul akum apply just as well.

Some foods are cooked in steam, rather than in water. If cooked this way by a gentile, are they prohibited as bishul akum? This is a very common case, since much commercial production, including canned vegetables and tuna, for example, are cooked in steam. In addition, many oriental foods include rice, which is commonly steamed.

This question became germane in the 19 th century, when factories began cooking food through steam. Similar to smoking, food cooked in steam, although closer to water, is also not direct heat and is not a method of cooking that existed in the days of Chazal. Does the halachic lenience that applies to smoking apply equally to steaming?

This issue was debated by the authorities of the time. An early responsum debates whether cane sugar is prohibited because of bishul akum, since the ground sugar cane was cooked in steam.
(Others authorities permitted cane sugar for a variety of other reasons [Aruch HaShulchan 113:23.])

Some authorities permitted steaming, just as smoking is permitted. Others permitted for a different reason, contending that steaming is a totally new production method that did not exist in the days of Chazal and was therefore not included in the prohibition. We find that some later authorities rely on this heter, but only in combination with other reasons to permit the food (Shu’t Minchas Yitzchak). On the other hand, other authorities contend that the heter of smoking cannot be extended to something cooked in vaporized water (Darkei Teshuvah 113:16).

Thus, some rabbonim would permit Jenny to cook blintzes or fish sticks in the microwave, whereas others would contend that this alternative form of cooking does not change the situation. I leave it to the individual to discuss with his rav or posek whether he permits the use of food cooked by a non-Jew with a microwave oven.

Seminary sous-chef
At this point, I would like to discuss the following shaylah I was once asked. A seminary discovered that the mother of their cook is not Jewish, and therefore the cook, herself, is not Jewish. The question was whether the seminary needs to kasher its entire kitchen.

There are two possible reasons to permit the seminary’s kitchen without kashering, both of which also apply to the Goldmans' ovens and pots. The household in which the food was cooked is Jewish, so that, according to Rabbi Avraham ben Rabbi David, the food is not bishul akum. In addition, there are Rishonim who contend that although Chazal prohibited bishul akum, they did not prohibit utensils that cooked bishul akum. Both of these positions are rejected as the final position in Shulchan Aruch, but perhaps based on the two together, one could avoid kashering. Since there are authorities who might permit the utensils under these circumstances, one should ask a shaylah from one's halachic authority whether one needs to kasher the equipment.

The Gemara teaches that the rabbinic laws are dearer to Hashem than the Torah laws. In this context, we can explain the vast halachic literature devoted to understanding this particular prohibition, created by Chazal to protect the Jewish people from major sins.

*Names have been changed.

This Shiur is published also at Rabbi Kaganof's site

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